When I was a kid, my dream was to be a farmer. Not just any kind of farmer though — I would be an exotic animal farmer with ostriches and alligators, and a generous one too, giving away baby chicks and ducklings because who doesn’t want baby animals? Oh, and I also had this great idea that my farm needed a resident ice skater (I was really into figure skating in my youth) so I promised my sister she could be the figure-skater-in-farm-residence and we’d make money by charging people to watch her skate on a rink surrounded by safari animals and baby birds. Now that childhood is long behind me, I know that the farm of my dreams was ever so slightly unrealistic. In fact, the idea of having a small farm — and making a living off of it – is still pretty unrealistic in general, with the persistence of industrial agriculture, despite the popularity of farmers’ markets, organic produce and high-end grocery stores among more affluent circles (more on that later).
But the kid version of me wasn’t concerned with the viability of my business plan. All I knew was that I loved learning about animals so becoming a farmer seemed like the perfect career choice. I poured over nature books and magazines, memorizing the gestation period, standard heights, weights and litter sizes of cheetahs, deer, crocodiles and wolves. My favorite picture books featured full-page rural landscapes, all rolling hills, red barns and yellow, winding paths. My childhood best friend lived in a house that backed into the woods and I was painfully jealous of her. Her backyard seemed so wild and interesting compared to my flat, grassy one, which backed into a boring old road. My best friend had a backyard that promised mystery, adventure and constant change; sometimes the creek was low, sometimes it was high; sometimes the trees were green, sometimes they were bare. Sometimes families of deer stopped to nibble on tree leaves or grass and several times, we found snakes in her basement. Snakes right in her basement!!! I was so jealous of the “danger” she was exposed to. The closest thing I found to a snake in my yard were the slimy earthworms that came out after rainstorms. While my best friend had this magical backyard world to explore, I’d memorized every mound, grassless patch and fencepost of my backyard and found it all very lacking in adventure.
But like all kids, I did find ways to entertain myself outside despite my subpar yard, usually alongside my sister and childhood best friend. In spring, when the daffodils started to come up, I was so impressed by their ability to push through the dirt year after year that I would sometimes brush away the dirt around them in an attempt to “help” them grow (and often killing them in the process). When a baby pine grew under our old white pine, I felt something akin to nostalgia while admiring it’s perfectly proportioned tiny branches and needles. It was an exact but delightfully tiny replica of its parent tree, and I never understood why my mom always pulled these babies out by the roots. My sister and I jumped up and down with unrestrained joy, screaming Coptero! Comptero! (little kid Spanish speak for helicopter) when the helicopter seedpods from our neighbor’s maple propelled down into our lawn. We’d gather up a handful and attempt to carefully pry them open with surgical precision, amazed that the 30 foot tree next door got its start from an unassuming brown pod like this one. Playing in the grass, I’d look closely at the rolly pollies, lady bugs and other non-gross bugs with scientific seriousness, and I still remember the amazement I felt imagining that these little guys had to eat, sleep, poop and reproduce, just like us humans. One of the things I miss most about being a kid is that feeling of encountering something unbelievable and mind-blowing on a daily basis.
As an adult, I’ve tried to satisfy my nature/farm yearning through frequent trips to the countryside, occasional camping trips, hiking when I’m up for it, and books and podcasts about rural life and modern farming. Farm life is my escapist fantasy of choice. I’ve spent a large part of the last decade daydreaming about a rural, agricultural lifestyle, even though I should probably be focusing on my career goals. I mean, I’ve killed pretty much every plant I’ve ever had and I’ve never been one for hard manual labor, but still, I fantasize about owning an old farmhouse somewhere in the Blue Ridge foothills and watching something grow from seed (or baby) to food. I think it’s safe to say that this fantasy features all the pastoral beauty and idyllic romanticism of farm life with none of the associated hard work and day-to-day nitty gritty.
But lately, I’ve been thinking about rural living in a more concrete, would this actually be possible? kind of way, which is kind of ridiculous because: 1.) I have no farm experience, unless you count a few childhood excursions to the Cox Farms pumpkin patch 2.) The farming life is very much incompatible with the nomad life…animals gotta eat everyday, after all 3.) I’m already mourning the goats and chickens that will have to be butchered despite the fact that I don’t actually have any goats or chickens 4.) I’ve killed three different lavender plants (mostly through neglect) in the last three years and 5.) While I am creative and spontaneous and prone to short-bursts of motivation and inspiration, I don’t exactly have what you might describe as a strong work ethic or follow-through. But my husband does. He grew up on a farm in Panama and he’s a handworker – persistent, constant, the kind of person who likes to finish what he starts and takes pride in his work. He’s had goats, cattle, chicken, ducks, crops, and knows how to raise and butcher animals, and has little sentimentality or reservation when it comes to doing so.
In my spare time, I sometimes browse farm blogs and listen to “homesteading” or backyard farming podcasts or read back-to-the farm memoirs. My takeaway has been that there’s a breed of organic, small-scale farmers whose agricultural success is due as much to targeted marketing and social media savvy as it is to heirloom produce and grass-fed meat. These are farmers with blogs, newsletters, how-to guides, online courses, memoirs and loyal CSA participants. These social media farmers have capitalized on a trend (at least in affluent circles who can afford it) toward local, natural, chemical-free produce and meat and are, in a way, selling beautifully packaged shares of a certain lifestyle. They tend to be divided into two camps: 1.) Religious homeschoolers with a penchant for “prepping” (stocking up on vital supplies in case apocalypse strikes) and 2.) Modern-day back-to-the-land hipsters with a libertarian streak and a deep commitment to sustainability, permaculture and environmental issues. This is overly simplistic and there’s plenty of overlap, of course, but I’ve found that the former tends to refer to what they are doing as “homesteading” while the latter sticks to “farming,” even if they are “farming” a one or two acre plot.
I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with these kinds of farmers; nowadays, a strong and well-defined social media presence is basically a must-have for any entrepreneurial freelancer trying to make a living. So is juggling a number of different revenue streams. It’s not enough to simply know how to grow tasty, healthy-looking organic tomatoes – you also have to know how to market them to people willing to pay $1-$2 for a single tomato. And if your self-published tomato-growing how-to e-guide can inspire an apartment dwelling-urbanite to grow his own container-balcony tomatoes, even better. So I guess what I’m trying to say, 1,000 words later, is that I kind of actually want to have a farm in more than just an escapist, theoretical way, and I’m starting to wonder if my husband’s real-life, hands-on experience and my writing/social media experience might make that a kind-of, maybe viable possibility.